Gaza Strip moves to preserve its abundant ancient treasure

The Gaza Strip was conquered by empires that left behind fortresses, alabaster jewelry, and bronze weaponry. Now the impoverished Strip is trying to rein in the black market in ancient treasure and better preserve items often found by chance.

By , / Correspondent

Better known for its long-running conflict, the Gaza Strip also has a reputation as an archaeological treasure-trove.

When laborers stumbled on an ancient hoard of 1,300 silver coins and the walls of a 3,300-year-old city in the southern town of Rafah in January, it was a fresh reminder that the tiny territory maintains a rich past.

At least a dozen major empires have conquered this tiny territory – including the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and British. They left behind everything from walled fortresses to alabaster jewelry to bronze weaponry.

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But in the absence of solid laws or regulations, relics from as early as the Bronze Age are happened upon mostly by chance, poorly kept, plundered, or sold on the black market.

"Gaza is very small geographically, but in terms of archaeology, it is very large," says the Hamas minister of tourism and antiquities, Mohammed al-Agha. "Gaza was at the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe, and there is a great accumulation of human civilization here. But we don't have our own specialists so we can't manage the sites professionally."

Far-flung Gaza artifacts

Many of Gaza's artifacts, including 3,000-year-old anthropoid coffins, can be found at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, dug up by Israeli archaeologists during the country's 38-year occupation of Gaza. Other Gazan antiquities are as far-flung as Istanbul and the British Museum in London.

"Gaza was for centuries the primary trade outlet of the hinterland of Jordan and the greater Arabian Peninsula," says Salim al-Mubaid, a professor at Gaza's Islamic University. "The Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Mamluks, and Ottomans all ruled us. There are secrets of history under every square meter."

Until fairly recently, black market antiquities dealers say their business was nothing short of a free-for-all. Of some 25,000 gold and bronze coins discovered since 1990, for example, 14,000 were stolen and sold off, according to the antiquities ministry.

Construction contractors like Jawhdat Khodary, who opened a private museum in a beachfront space in 2008, would pay laborers and local fishermen for any artifacts they found, preserving at least 3,000 pieces.

"An ancient piece the size of a cellphone from the Pharaonic or Canaanite eras easily sells for $1 million on the black market," says Abu Ahmed, a dealer involved in the underground antiquity trade. "And I used to make a major deal every month."

He says Israel's new travel restrictions through the Erez border crossing have hampered smuggling. But the market for relics in Israel, which he says is the biggest, is still there.

Many Israelis consider the ancient region of Canaan, in which Gaza is believed to have been located, the precursor of the original land of Israel in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC.

But Hamas says it is making both the regulation and preservation of historical sites a priority. The tourism and antiquities ministry inaugurated in January an artifacts museum in Gaza City – in an Ottoman-era governor's residence – and took control of the Rafah coin find.

Mr. Agha says the ministry also plans to cooperate with Gaza's Islamic University to expand courses on archaeology. Hamas hired a new guard for the remains of the 3rd-century monastery that Mr. Mubaid says is Gaza's most important site.

But Mr. Khodary charges Hamas with censoring some of his finds. He claims Hamas asked him to put away tiny menorahs – and a small statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, whose gown was deemed too revealing.

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